Photography in Geology

Guadalupe Peak, West Texas

Photographs and annotations on the photographs are important for any scientific paper’s ability to clearly, consistently, and concisely explain to the reader observations and ideas. Too often in scientific papers, especially in the field of geology, I see photos with annotations consisting of vague arrows, unclear of what the reader should focus on, or even worse, the annotated photo where the writer relies entirely on the caption to explain to the reader the importance of different features in the photograph.

I don’t consider myself a good photographer by any means. I do love to practice taking photos and I consider every shot I take a chance to learn more about the medium. I’ve mostly self-taught myself the techniques of working a camera and arranging a shot with the exception of a high-school digital media art class where I learned the basics of Adobe Photoshop. Recently, I began reading Ansel Adams’ book Camera and Lens. Reading the forward is what inspired this post.


First why do we need to think about photography? What problems and challenges to we face when preparing photos and annotating figures for publication?

  • Size. Will a 2.5 inches wide conserve detail and resolution?
  • Cost. Figures in a paper cost the author money. Extra for color figures. 
  • Annotation. This must be clear without distracting or obscuring the information in the photograph itself.
  • Color. As mentioned above, even with the proliferation of online journals, color figures cost extra. Color also forces the author to think about readership, colorblindness. Also, many journal articles are consumed via black and white prints on cheap paper, how will the color photos look when printed in black and white?
Serpentine and Asbestos, Quebec
Before we delve into those questions I’d like to share and reflect on some quotes from Ansel Adams. 

Information through photography is abetted by aesthetic factors… There should be a little art in the most practical applications of the medium, and the technical elements must be fully developed in all.

Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas; it is an exalted profession and a creative art.

Should we add a little art into our scientific photos? What Ansel Adams is telling us here is that we should have a complete understanding of our technical camera equipment. An understanding of camera aperture and shutter speed can be useful for different lighting situations. For instance I know that my Nikon D7000 tends to overexpose photos in bright direct light when the auto setting is on. By understanding the technical limitations of my camera, I can counteract that with manual settings to take a better photo.

Tiny hoodoos. Xuantunich, Belize

Countless photographs are dull and unrewarding simply because they convey only the surface light and shadow of the world–not the substance or the spirit. Why is an Edward Weston photograph of a rock vastly more exciting than a very competent informational or technical picture of the same rock? The chances are that the latter might by physically “sharper,” and may reveal to a geologist certain physical facts in all the aspects that the Weston picture cannot do.

So I wonder if we can strike a balance between the technical and the art, the dull and the spirit. Can we make photos that are both factually compelling and creatively compelling?

The difference between the creative approach and the factual approach is one of purpose, sensitivity and the ability to visualize an emotionally and aesthetically exciting image… It is a safe assumption that aesthetic and emotional factors accent the informational content of any image; they create interest, and this spurs the desire for comprehension. 

So let’s work to make photos and figures that create interest in our work and “spur[s] the desire for comprehension” of our science.

Carlsbad Caverns, NM


I highly recommend learning the manual settings of your camera. When I got my Nikon D7000 I was given a book specific to the D7000. It was a great resource for lens and settings recommendations for shooting everything from portraits and landscapes to macro and moshpits. 
For anyone interested you can check out my photography on Instagram and DeviantArt. Comments and criticisms on my photos are always welcome. I always want to know what I could have done to make a photo better.

Have any thoughts on the state of figures and photos in science? Let us know in the comments.